Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Poignant Story of a Colonial Era Bible

The Sparrow Family Bible
[From my own collection]

Among my family collection of ephemera and artefacts is an old hand sized Bible. But 154 years after the death of the then 21 year old owner in the remote and wild backblocks of colonial era New Zealand, this old King James Version Bible has a poignant story to tell. This story is doubly significant for me because had the owner lived I would simply not be here.

In 1982, as I rummaged through boxes of dusty old books in my Father's then unoccupied and eerily sombre old family home in rural Southland, a small and well handled leatherette bound Bible caught my eye. I had no idea of who it belonged to and the scribble of family names in it, dating back to 1841, meant absolutely nothing to me. Out of perhaps 100 books, many of them old school or church prizes from the Edwardian era, some with fancy art nouveau style covers, I chose only a comfortable handful which included the Bible. It was however only a matter of some weeks later that the old wooden house burnt down in a blazing inferno with the loss of all the remaining books, many with presentation bookplates which I would have liked to have kept. But what prompted me to choose this old Bible, thus saving it and the story that went with it, has always intrigued me as my choice proved to be significant.

The Names of Sparrow Family Children
Recorded in the Old Bible
[From my own Collection]

It was only as late as 2003 that I was finally able to unravel, through an Internet surname interest list, the full story relating to the scribble of family names on the inside cover of the Bible. I discovered that it related to my Great Grandfather's first wife and her own siblings, being of course all in her maiden name. This now linked the Bible to known family history and is today a very tangible link to a series of momentous events that occurred over 150 years ago.  

The picturesque Simpson Family Home and adjoining
Stonecarving Business at 5 Ipswich Road, Stowmarket.
Note the yard with an array of carved tombstones.
[Source : M. Humphries, England]

So I now know that I hold the family Bible of Emma Sparrow (born 1841) and her siblings of Suffolk, England. Being born in the small village of Onehouse, Emma married my Great Grandfather, Charles Herbert Simpson, a stonemason of Stowmarket, on the 28th April 1861. As Emma was the eldest daughter and her parents were by then deceased this may account for her holding the Sparrow family Bible. While an unintentional pun, I also discovered that her mother's maiden name was "Bird". Even then this would have been the subject of some mirth. But surprisingly, I note that Emma's marriage certificate is signed with an "X" which indicates that she could not write thus sadly her education was obviously limited. The 1851 census (when aged 10) shows her as residing with her family in Stowmarket with "Sunday School" given under 'occupation' rather than "scholar" were she attending school. Her younger siblings were likewise recorded as "Sunday School". Unfortunately schools were then not always free let alone compulsory by law.

The Simpson Family Stonemason's Trade Card
[From my own collection]

The Simpson family ran a successful stonemason's business in Stowmarket, working mainly on carving tombstones. But by the end of August 1861 both Emma (née Sparrow) and Charles Simpson, including his siblings and elderly parents, as well as grandchildren, had departed en masse for a new life in Colonial New Zealand. What specifically drew them here all at once is unknown as they left behind an apparently thriving business, being carried on by remaining family members. Emma would almost certainly have known when she married that in under six months she would be embarking on a voyage half way around the world for a new life in New Zealand, leaving behind not only her friends of old but also her own eight surviving siblings.

The Immigrant Sailing Vessel, "Chile", which
served from 1860 to 1892
[Source : Ward, Simpson Family History 1861-1976]

The immigrant sailing vessel "Chile", an iron hulled ship of 768 tons under charter to "Shaw Saville & Co." and carrying no less than ten Simpson family members, departed from Gravesend London on the 29th August 1861, arriving at Port Chalmers New Zealand on the 14th December 1861 after a no doubt tiresome - and perilous - voyage. She was known as a fast ship and described as "One of the noblest passenger ships afloat, whose cabins have all the conveniences of an ocean steamer." Still, such a voyage, especially in a sailing vessel, was not taken lightly. Emma brought out with her the small Sparrow family Bible which is now not only a tangible link to Emma herself but also to the 1861 voyage of the "Chile". All travelled as steerage passengers on a promissory note, which means that the fare was to be repaid from wages to be earned in New Zealand through employment with the Provincial Government.

The rugged Southern Coastline with the Waikawa Estuary 
highlighted. The settlement of Waikava was, as at 1861, 
located on the eastern (right hand) side of the harbour.
[Source : Google Maps]

While family folklore, especially after 154 years, can be misleading, the generally accepted and most believable story (of two diverse versions) was that Mrs Emma Simpson née Sparrow, died in childbirth at Waikava [the old name for the present day Waikawa] not long after her arrival in New Zealand, also losing her child. Luckily both versions of the family "story" do at least relate to Waikava, then a remote settlement on the southern coast and being primarily serviced by occasional passing coastal trade vessels. Due to this remoteness neither death could be officially registered nor was this attended to later thus there are simply no written records. But the Bible I rescued has at least, along with the names and dates of birth of Emma's eight siblings, the following entries :

"Emma Sparrow, Born 23rd January 1841"

[and underneath in different handwriting]

"Died July 12th 1862"

Confirmation in the Bible of the date of birth and
date of death of Mrs Emma Simpson (née Sparrow).
[From my own collection]

My family never knew why Mrs Emma Simpson née Sparrow had even been in such a remote settlement. The other less believable "story" of her death related to a shipwreck off Waikava on the journey further south. Although a decidedly treacherous coastline, either in a sailing vessel or steamer, no ships were reported as lost at this time. But around ten years ago the discovery of an obscure newspaper reference in the "Otago Witness" for the 3rd January 1863 resolved this mystery beyond reasonable doubt. The article refers to blocks of stone from "Waikava" carved by Mr E. Simpson (Senior) to be exhibited at the Industrial Exhibition at Dunedin. Thus the Simpson family had been employed at Waikava, reverting to their stonemasonry skills and presumably under the direction of the Provincial Government. While it is known that stone mining once took place in this area, the local Historical Museum advised me that the stone proved not to be durable for building purposes.

The Settlement of Waikawa as it appeared in 1899
still with native forest on the hills. As at 1861 the
old settlement of Waikava lay across the harbour.
[Source : The Cyclopedia of Otago & Southland]

The harbour at Waikava, then being a sufficient ten feet at low tide, enabled not only quarried and dressed stone but also good quality coal from local seams and around 20,000 feet of milled timber per week from the Haldane family sawmill to be shipped to larger settlements such as Dunedin. The silting up of the bar at the entrance to the picturesque harbour, being the estuary of the Waikawa River, plus the opening up of inland roads and the extension of the southern railway line in the mid to late 1870's proved to be the death knell of Waikava as a coastal shipping port.

The Information Board at the current Waikawa Cemetery
[From own own collection]

The Waikawa Cemetery now records Emma's death on an information board although her burial place, including that of her infant child, lies on farmland in the private Haldane Family burial ground on the other side of the estuary. In these early years the old settlement of Waikava was then located across the harbour. Emma's resting place and that of other early settlers was, according to an older resident, once surrounded by a picket fence but this is no longer extant. I believe a rock now marks the area. While I have not yet visited I hope one day to pay my own respects, taking with me Emma's Bible. Emma's grieving husband, Charles Herbert Simpson, later married again and had five children, one being my Grandmother, being named Emma in remembrance of his first wife. Charles himself died at Riverton Southland in 1877 aged 38 years after suffering a severe epileptic attack.

The new Waikawa Cemetery on the western side of the bay
taken looking towards the south east. Emma Simpson's
grave lies on the other side of the bay.
[From my own collection]

One could not imagine Emma's feelings of expectation, but no doubt also trepidation, at dutifully following her husband half way around the world. She met her fate only seven months later while in childbirth in the remote coastal settlement of Waikava and far from experienced medical care. She was probably reliant on her mother in law, Mrs Lucy Simpson and a capable local settler and mother, Mrs Elizabeth (Betsy) Haldane. Emma is certainly buried on what was then the Haldane family farm. Sadly, I note that Emma's own mother had died of "childbirth complications" in 1856 (the child lived). One dreads to think of what Emma may have suffered in those final hours or even days. But her family Bible, a very tangible and tactile link to Emma herself, has helped keep her tragic story alive today.

The Simpson Family,
Stowmarket, Suffolk, England, 1861
[Source : M. Humphries, Cambridge, England]

There the story of Emma and her Bible would have ended but for the quite unexpected and rather remarkable discovery of a named outdoors group photo of the Simpson family taken before they departed for New Zealand in 1861, being held by distant family descendants in England. This includes Emma (née Sparrow) and her husband Charles Simpson, the only known photograph of both.

The rear of a carte-de-visite
photograph taken by John Deazeley
of Stowmarket, circa 1864 - 1873.
[Source : Photographers of Australia]

This photograph could either be the work of "F. Downing" or "John Deazeley". Downing is known to have had a "short lived" studio in Ipswich Street, Stowmarket in 1858 but unfortunately there is no subsequent record of him. Another photographer, John Deazeley (1831-1890), who we do know specialised in small carte-de-visite format outdoors group photos, especially of sports groups, appears not to have set up a permanent studio in Stowmarket until 1864. As at 1861 he is noted as working as a Photographer but living at Halesworth which is 30 miles north of Stowmarket. The Simpson photo is a copy print so there are no other identifying details but we can at least be certain about the date it was taken.

Emma Simpson (née Sparrow) and Charles Simpson, 1861
[Source : M. Humphries, Cambridge, England]

Today we see a grainy image of a thin-faced woman peering out from a slow exposure (in good light perhaps a few seconds) photo taken in England a century and a half ago. I am still left wondering at what unknown guiding force motivated me to save her Bible from an impending inferno and then to find the 1861 Simpson family photo - plus all their names. I like to think that Emma herself desired that her story be told and that she wished not to be forgotten. It is rather odd but curiously satisfying that other serendipitous discoveries, with some being more than mere chance, have occurred to me over the years.

Bibliography :

- "Ward, Simpson Family History 1861 - 1976" by Lucy Froggatt (from my own collection)
- "The Ward Family History", Dec 1975, by Lucy Froggatt (from my own collection)
- "Cyclopedia of Otago and Southland", 1905 (from my own collection)
- "Photographers of Australia" Website
- "Shaw Saville & Albion Line" records (accessed 1975)
- Humphries family, England
- Simpson Family History (commissioned by the Simpson family)
- "Papers Past", National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
- Personal Family papers

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